Here's something you might not have expected to see Boston Dynamics' robot dog Spot doing any time soon: herding sheep on a rugged New Zealand mountainside.
The slightly bizarre sequence is part of a promotional video demonstrating Spot's potential in the agricultural industry; it also includes footage of Spot checking on crops and clambering over rough terrain. (And rolling in the grass? We're not sure.)
The video was put together by robotics software firm Rocos, which is working with Boston Dynamics to explore how its collection of droids can be controlled remotely. The idea is that bots like Spot could be sent out on missions while a human operator sits on the other side of the world.
For farmers, that could mean having a robot monitor fields around the clock, checking in on crop growth or fruit ripening, all while being remotely operated. Bots such as these can walk, roll along, or even fly, and they can also be equipped with all kinds of sensors for assessing the environment around them.
"By connecting robots to the cloud, we can help them combine a cloud software layer with robotics to achieve physical automation at scale," says Rocos CEO David Inggs. "Our customers are augmenting their human workforces to automate physical processes that are often dull, dirty, or dangerous."
If you've never met Spot before, the dog-like robot has been entertaining and unnerving us for a number of years now, and it keeps on getting more capable and more intelligent. One of its latest tricks is being able to open doors.
These metal beasts can work together too, with a team of 10 Spots recently shown pulling a truck. The robots use cameras and on-board sensors to work out where they are and where they're going, with instructions pre-programmed into them by human operators.
One of the particular benefits of Spot is its nimbleness: those four bendable legs enable it to cover all kinds of terrain that would defeat a robot on wheels. It's also adept at picking itself up again if it stumbles and falls over.
These robots can be put to genuinely useful purposes. They can potentially be used in disaster areas where it's unsafe for human recovery workers to go, for example, and they're already being used to monitor energy industry infrastructure, checking for problems and damage that would otherwise go undetected.
In the last few weeks we've also seen a Spot robodog on patrol in Singapore, advising people to practice social distancing and to stay a safe distance from each other while out and about in parks.
When it comes to herding sheep, we only get a few seconds of footage, and it doesn't look like Spot is fully trained just yet – it likely doesn't yet possess the speed necessary to fully replace a sheepdog (and we can see a couple of canines on patrol as well).
In the coming years though, robots like Spot could find themselves employed in all kinds of ways in agriculture and other industries. They might even evolve to look a bit friendlier, as well.
"The automation of agriculture is changing the way farmers work, increasing efficiency of the world's food production for an ever-growing human population," concludes the promo video uploaded by Rocos.